An interview with incoming interim president John Mills

John Mills has been selected by the VSCS Board of Trustees to serve as NVU’s interim president during the period preceding consolidation of the institution’s four residential campuses. He was discovered through Dutcher LLC, an educational consulting agency, which is a field he has worked in since retiring in 2014.

 Prior to this, he served 10 years as president of Paul Smith’s College in Paul Smith’s, New York. While president there, Mills furthered the institutional opportunities available to faculty and students. A few years prior to his arrival in 2004, Paul Smith’s had begun offering bachelor’s degrees, and it remains the only four-year college in the Adirondack Park.

 According to a webpage on his legacy at Paul Smith’s, Mills oversaw the construction of several new residence halls, a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified science center, as well as the redesigning of a student center.

 The page also describes investments in personnel and curriculum, such as a program to help faculty members earn advanced degrees following the college’s rise to baccalaureate status. It also notes student success initiatives which resulted in the highest rates of graduation in the school’s history.

 Before entering administration, Mills taught at a number of Ivy-League institutions, including Dartmouth, MIT, Clarkson, and Harvard. His own educational background includes a B.S. in zoology from the University of Rhode Island and a Ph.D. in biology from Brown University.

 As a biologist, Mills focused much of his research on kidneys. Specifically, he studied hormonal impact on water and sodium transport. In pursuit of this goal, he spent a deal of time studying the bladders of frogs and toads.

 Currently, Mills is consulting at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. Because of when his contract with them expires, Mills will only be able to visit campus during convocation in August, but he will return permanently in October. During that period, NVU Provost Nolan Atkins will serve as chief operating officer and handle on-campus responsibilities.

 

What led you to NVU during such a turbulent time for our institution?

Well, boy, that’s a question that could take me a while to answer. First of all, you may or may not know I lived in New Hampshire and New York in the Adirondacks for quite a part of my life, so Vermont was that place in between that I spent a lot of time.

I’m an avid skier and fly fisherman, so I probably crossed the Connecticut River four or five times a week and went to all kinds of different places, and when I was in the Adirondacks, I came into Vermont mainly for skiing at that time, so I was very attracted to the state.

I spent my entire life in higher ed, and I spent a lot of it in medical schools, maybe even some would say elite schools, working with students. Then I started doing administrative work at institutions that really were filling a niche, providing a lot of opportunity for young people to get the education they need for professional jobs.

I found that as something I really enjoyed doing… working toward getting those institutions to fulfill their promises to students. So long story short, I retired [and] I’ve come into different interim jobs since 2014, when I left Paul Smith’s.

I was coming here to Allegheny, which was certainly quite a different school than most of the state schools in Vermont, but I got a call saying, “would you be interested in considering this interim position?” and I said, “wow, this is more in my wheelhouse. This is the kind of a place that I feel I can really make a difference with my experience and my passion for what needs to be done.”

Plus, I have to say that after the turmoil of last spring, I thought the state legislature, the committee that worked on it and the chancellor’s office really stepped up to try and solve a problem that all state systems are facing. So, I said, “boy, these people have really made a commitment, and I’d like to be part of that.”

 

How familiar were you with NVU before you took this position?

Well, not that familiar with NVU. Many years ago, when I was president of Paul Smith’s, I’d actually had some contact with the administrators at Johnson State, because we were trying to find a way to develop what I called the Northern Forest Hospitality Training Program… so we tried to partner with Johnson and set up a training program.

To be honest, it didn’t get off the ground there, so we started it on our own and did it for a couple of years, but then… the crash of 2008 hit, and we were very hard pressed to continue to fund it, because it was not a moneymaker… It was a way to get our name out there.

 

Other than the initial transition into your new role, what difficulties do you foresee?

I see quite a few. First of all… the turmoil from last spring has created lots of doubts in people’s minds about where we’re going to end up. One of my first things is to try and build a sense of commitment and that there is a vision to move ahead.

There will be changes, but we’ve got to first try to rebuild community. We’re all in this together, and I honestly feel that from talking to the head of the legislature, to the head of the Board of Trustees, that everybody knows these institutions must not only survive, we have to find a way to make them prosper.

When you look at the return on investment that a graduate from the state system returns to Vermont when they stay in Vermont, it’s very high compared to the taxes you put into the institution, so we’ve got to communicate the value of what we’re doing, and we’ve got to communicate that we’re here for the long haul.

Those are the two biggest challenges. There’ll be many others, [like] getting the other institutions together. If you look at the public comments that are on the Chancellor’s website–obviously, I’m going to have to learn about Castleton, because… they’re expressing the strongest anti-consolidation words.

 

On that topic, do you have any thoughts on dealing with those cultural differences between campuses?

I have to learn the cultures. I’m learning it and can certainly see the difference in culture just from the comments there in the public domain. I’ve heard some things, but of course it’s been very biased because I’m hearing it from NVU’s side, not from the Castleton side.

I think the real message is… we’ve got to work together. We’ve got to consolidate. We’ve got to bring some of these programs into coordination with each campus so that we’re not duplicating and wasting resources. So, you’re going to have to have hard talks, and it’s got to be give and take.

Nobody is, I think, coming in there with an already signed document saying, “this is what we’re going to do.” We’re going to work that out. And you’ve just got to, always at the end of the day in higher ed, [ask], “what are you doing for the students’ learning?” Cause if you’re not doing that, you shouldn’t be in this business.

 

Could you tell me your main two or three goals for your interim period?

The first goal is to build community–to get that fear factor out of the institution as much as possible. It won’t go out completely… but you’ve got to get it out. The goal has to be that everybody learns we’re here for the long haul. We’re going to make this work, and we’ve got to work together.

Because a president doesn’t teach; a president doesn’t fix the buildings; a president doesn’t coach the athletes. You’ve got to have everybody feeling optimistic that there’s a future. That’s the first and primary goal.

The other goal for me is to convince the Vermont taxpayers that support of this school has not been good. For the whole system, the taxpayer support has not been adequate. [We were] 49th in the nation up until this recent budget change, and they’ve got to realize… that this is an economic engine. This enhances the state of Vermont’s wealth.

And of course, the third goal is to get every god darn student in the state of Vermont wanting to come here. Whether or not that happens, well, we’ll see, but those are the three goals.

 

Could you elaborate on the system as an economic engine?

The simple economic model is, the taxpayers spend money, and the students spend money on tuition and fees–well, the parents usually–but they spend money on tuition and fees. That money goes into… educating students.

If you did the numbers you might say, “all right, is there a value added to this?” And yes, there is, because now you’re training a young person who’s going to go out with an ability to earn more money than they did if they didn’t get trained.

And if they stay in Vermont–and… I think it’s over 70% of graduated students who stay in Vermont–they pay higher taxes, and they invest more in the community. They’re spending more money; they have more discretionary income.

So, when you do the input–the tax money and the tuition that people are paying–and then you measure the output–that’s the money staying in the community… that is going to be more income because you’ve educated these students than if they weren’t educated. I think if you do the numbers, you’re going to find it’s a real draw and a real help to the coffers of the state of Vermont.

 

I know your background is in biology–what led you to economic consulting?

Well, you know, it was a long haul–I don’t know if you know how old I am.

 

I do not.

Well, you’re not supposed to ask, so I’ll tell you. I’ll be 74 when I get to Vermont, so I’ve been around a long time. One of the trite sayings is, “this isn’t my first rodeo.”

I’ve been in higher education within research, medical schools, all this other stuff doing NIH- NSF-funded research with graduate students–all that pathway. Then when I got to Paul Smith’s… I saw that we can help our communities by education of students.

The base of every community are those middle class people who have the skills and the approach to making the community a better place to live… So that’s those schools; they do that better than anybody else. The state school systems do it better than anybody.

 

Now, I have to ask–Elaine mentioned you’re an expert on fish bladders–

No, not fish bladders. No, no, no–amphibian bladders.

 

Oh, okay! Do you want to tell me about that?

This is a very esoteric thing, because no one really studies it anymore, but when I started my career–for the first 15 or 20 years I was in science–I was studying sodium and chloride transport.

You won’t believe this until you really look it up, but one of the best models for studying hormonal control of salt and water transport that [humans] have to do is using toad and frog urinary bladders, because they respond to the same hormones that we do.

Vasopressin, aldosterone, and all these other hormones that control salt and water metabolism were hormones that affect the frog and the toad… Aldosterone [is] the same thing that controls salt in your kidney and vasopressin [is] the same thing that controls water in your kidney. That’s how we learned an awful lot about those two hormones–by studying it in the bladders of frogs and toads.

I won’t bore you–I could go on for hours, because I love the subject–but when you see a toad out on the grass or hopping around, sometimes when you pick it up, what do they do? They pee on you.

That’s because when they’re in water, they make a very normal urine, but they don’t concentrate it like we do. It passes down into their bladder, and they store it there, and then they go on dry land, they absorb the water out of the bladder, so they can be on dry land for a while. Then, when they’ve got [all] the water out of the bladder… that’s when they have to go get more.

The other side of that–I can really bore you–is the skin does the same thing because they absorb water… If you ever want to go out and walk around and look at toads on a damp or a wet day, they’ll be sitting with their back in pressed down hard on the wet grass.

Because that part of their skin–not the skin way up at their mouth, that part down by the grass–is where there are special receptors that respond to vasopressin with salt water. So, what they’re doing when you see them sitting like that, they’re absorbing water through their skin.

Meanwhile, in an alternate universe…

What are some other areas you’ve studied?

Well, I did a lot of work on chloride transport, because one of the problems that you have when you study sodium is, well, sodium has to have chloride go with it. One of the biggest problems in cystic fibrosis is malfunction of chloride–it’s chloride secretion in that case, but it’s still chloride transport, [and] frogs and toads are solving it.

For a short stint, I did research on the retina with a colleague at Mass General Hospital, and we studied a certain cell in the retina–the amacrine cell–which responded to acetylcholine. No one knew that, but we were able to discover that and determine what that cell was.

But that was just a four- or five-year sidetrack for a while study in the retina. Mainly it was kidney-related research with frogs and toads.

 

How would you describe yourself outside of the work environment?

Old, balding–let’s see, what else? A little overweight, and a very ardent outdoor enthusiast. Still at 73, right now my two favorite things are downhill skiing and fly fishing on streams–not sitting in a boat, waiting and working the stream.

My daughter who lives in Montana is an avid camper and hiker; we love hiking, finding places to go. She has to wait for me most of the time, but we hike up mountains like Emigrant Peak and things like that.

This is something I won’t be able to do this year, but I’m absolutely a gardener. I love vegetable gardening–a little bit of flowers, but mainly vegetables. I’ve got an absolutely gorgeous quarter horse, and I love anything outdoors. I hate being indoors.

 

Now that the pandemic is winding down, what are some things you’re looking forward to doing again?

One of the things that I did Paul Smith’s–it was started by someone else, but I loved it, so I started at Mount Aloysius–was full moon hikes with the students. We’ll pick a place where you can hike and maybe get a little elevation to see the moon… and you’ve got to time it right. Sometimes the full moon doesn’t show until one in the morning, other times it’s up at five in the afternoon.

Another thing I did, at both mount Aloysius and Paul Smith’s… was ski with the President on Presidents Day. We went to a ski area, students would sign up, we’d get vans, and we’d go, and we’d even give lessons… and as long as I can still ski, I want to do that.

 

Do you have any guilty pleasures you’d care to share?

Yes, but I’m coming to the right state for it–I love microbrew beer. I joked with my daughter’s significant other–[who] runs, owns and is the brewer for Neptune’s Brewery in Livingston, Montana–I said, “I’m going to be in Vermont, because all the microbreweries are closer than they are in Montana, so I get to go to more than one.” But, yeah, that’s my guilty pleasure–I love microbrew beer.

 

What about pet peeves? Any we should know about before you get here?

When I work with people, especially in an administration when you’ve got a team working, and someone gives a comment, “well that’s not the way it’s done,” or “they say,” my response is, “show me the data.”

Who’s they? If it’s not the way it’s done, show me the school that’s doing it the way you say, or show me how it’s done. One of the things that always drove me crazy is “they say,” … Until you tell me who “they” is, what you’re saying is off the table–I don’t want to hear it.

 

If you could tell our school one thing about yourself before you arrived, what would you say?

That I care about every person who works there, because I don’t do the job. Everybody else is doing the job–I’m just responsible for making sure it gets done. If I’m responsible, I’ve got to support every person to make sure the job gets done. That’s the key.

My brother was in charge of Titleist golf ball production, and his factory [had] these enormous machines, thread, and a few people working. You come to higher ed–it’s all people that do everything. There are no machines, so you can’t do it unless everybody’s on board.

The other thing you have to remember–where else in United States, or anywhere, is the product the same thing as the customer? The student is the customer, but the student is the product. Everything is human-centered, so you’ve got to support those people.